Simulation Exercise Examines Atrocity Prevention Board’s Role in Preventing and Responding to Mass Atrocities

This summer, Human Rights First and the National Defense University’s (NDU) Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) conducted for the second time the simulation exercise Shrouded Horizons, which examines the challenges of identifying and responding to potential mass atrocities. Twenty-six representatives from ten agencies of the Sub-Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) working group participated in a simulation and round-table discussion examining prevention of mass atrocities, U.S. response options, and international efforts to prevent or mitigate crimes against humanity. How the exercise works The exercise incorporates traits and indicators common to genocide and other mass atrocities, e.g., an instance a history of armed conflict, human rights violations and discriminatory practices committed against a group, introduction of discriminatory legislation, targeted elimination of community leaders, state sponsored violence, and prohibition of media and humanitarian aid. The exercise introduced a three-move escalating ethnic conflict in the border region of a fictitious pair of countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have a long-standing history of conflict. At the conclusion of each move, participants were asked to discuss issues relevant to national security and actions that might be taken by the Sub-APB. In the first phase of the exercise, the political discrimination of an ethnic minority is on the rise, and the government is using criminal gangs belonging to that minority group as an excuse to crack down on farming communities dispossessing them of their land. As the violence escalates in the second phase of the exercise, and state sponsored militias grow, government forces start targeting the communities resulting in impromptu refugee camps spreading across the borders. In the final phase, millions of people belonging to that minority group have become internally displaced or have disappeared into government prisons. The government is blocking media and humanitarian aid, while its neighboring state, comprising of a majority of the persecuted ethnic group threatens intervention. Below are key insights we took from the exercise Information Gathering and Information Flow U.S. officials have a wide range of resources from which to gather information of a brewing crisis situation. In the early stages, the government should assess their capacity within local embassies and determine additional resources that may be needed to effectively respond to escalating crises. In states that have been low priorities for the government, the most reliable sources of information in the early stages of the conflict are the Ambassadors-in-Country or Chiefs of Mission. Other sources of information include the diaspora community living in the United States, businesses operating in the affected area, Peace Corps, certain non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations. While information gathering is a large concern in the early stages of a crisis, in the later stages, the information flow will become abundant, and the new challenge will be collating and creating a central repository for information across all agencies. Given the array of information sources and the likelihood that misinformation will be shared to advance competing agendas on the ground, the need for a mechanism that can compile, analyze, and “de-conflict” information accessible to all agencies is paramount. Resourcing The ability to mobilize and deploy resources for preventive action is critical to the mission of the APB. A key role of the APB is to increase awareness throughout their agency offices of other aspects of atrocity prevention and response and of the paradox that as more resources come online as the conflict progresses they will decrease in utility. Actions that can be taken in the early stages of a potential mass atrocity situation include performing an inventory of resources in the affected area, building the capacity for a “civilian surge” within the U.S. government, and reaching out to non-U.S. government stakeholders to determine what resources can and will contribute to resolving the conflict. In order to be effective, the APB will require adequate resources and staff, and this issue needs to be addressed in the coming months. The Presidential Security Directive on Mass Atrocities (PSD-10) does not address this fundamental concern. Further, in the current environment of constricted budgets, creative solutions need to be developed for the APB to become an integral component of the national security decision-making process and achieve its goal of preventing atrocities. Coordination of Preventive Efforts As a crisis escalates, rapid and coordinated actions for a range of issues will be necessary, for instance, humanitarian assistance, refugees and internally displaced persons, human rights violations, among others. The APB will be well positioned to coordinate the activities of the U.S. government with groups such as the United Nations, the NGO community, and other state actors throughout the prevention and response phases. However, the question as to how the APB should be structured to respond to each of these situations as they arise remains unresolved. The APB and the IPC System It was established that once a situation has escalated to an elevated crisis beyond the stage for strictly preventive efforts, the APB would still have a role to play. It will supplement the work of the Interagency Policy Committee, the main day-to-day entity for interagency coordination of national security policy. The APB, having a critical mass of information and inherent knowledge of past atrocity responses can be a valuable contributor and resource to policy discussions. For example, having monitored a situation for a sustained period before the crisis, the APB would have theoretically have a wealth of information, analysis, and networks in place to inform response. Also, the APB can play a role in accountability; the evidence it collects and preserves in an mass atrocity situation can be used in later criminal prosecutions, which are critical in discouraging future atrocity. The APB and Enablers of Mass Atrocities Mass atrocities are highly complex and often involve third parties that enable widespread attacks by providing material and technical means on which perpetrators rely. The APB being primarily concerned with prevention, is suited to play a leading role in identifying such enablers, for instance, government-owned companies that supply weapons to a regime, and to suggest and take measures, such as the use of financial sanctions, to quickly disrupt such supply chains. These efforts would be most effective and have greatest impact at the early stages of a crisis. Human Rights First has been advocating for atrocity prevention as a key national policy priority and is engaged in efforts contributing to an effective Atrocities Prevention Board.


Published on August 17, 2012


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